Jazz On Lockdown ~ Hear it Here ~ Exiles

Michal Martyniuk

At the beginning of the pandemic, it all seemed so far away. As of today 1/3 of the world’s population are in lockdown and New Zealand with them. A busy South Pacific Island was suddenly disconnected from the world; adrift except for an undersea fibre-optic cable. As confusion dominated the interim period, aircraft were grounded without warning and among the travellers unable to proceed was a touring musician; an improvising exile. Now, we are all exiles from our former lives and major cities have fallen silent.

I refer above to the Polish Pianist Michal Martyniuk, here on holiday and about to return to Poland. Luckily, he has family here and a reason to feel safe in New Zealand. With East European travel curtailed, he organised a gig at the only place he could find, a showroom. This was the last gig I attended before the curtain of isolation fell and it is therefore special to me. 

The venue was the Lewis Eady piano showroom with space for only a dozen chairs, the audience encompassed by a circle of Steinways. Beautiful instruments all; dark polished lacquer and keys gleaming like fashion-models teeth. We were all beginners at social distancing and a few random hugs occurred. After greeting friends, I approached Martyniuk to ask about the format. 

 ‘Eadys have provided me with their finest Steinway B and the acoustics here are so good that the piano will not be mic’d. Nor will the bass or drums naturally’. 

Although the floors were marble, the soft curtains and the cavalcade of pianos soaked up any liveliness. I was able to record the entire concert (mostly Martyniuk originals plus three standards). When leaving home I had realised that I had no video equipment ready, so I grabbed a Zoom recorder and a high-end Rhode mic. They sat on a wooden chair a metre away from the piano.

Cameron McArthur and Ron Samsom completed the line-up; both players having a long association with Martyniuk, accompanying him at Java Jazz and on an album. A few days ago I uploaded the material, savoured the experience. I might not experience live music for quite some time to come. This recording may be unmixed but it sounds special to me.

Michal Martyniuk Trio (NZ). Michael Martyniuk (piano), Cameron McArthur (upright bass), Ron Samsom (drums). recent album Resonance – michalmartyniuk.bandcamp.com

The lockdowns won’t stop jazz! To assist musicians who’ve had performances cancelled, get their music heard around the globe. There Jazz Journalists Association created a Jazz on Lockdown: Hear it Here community blog. for more, click through to https://news.jazzjournalists.org/catagory/jazz-on-lockdown/ 

Jazz on Lockdown ~ Hear it here series

My normal weekly post has been sitting in my ‘drafts’ folder for over two weeks. Since writing it,  my attention has been focused elsewhere.  Although in isolation, I am not referring to my personal situation but to the J JA ‘Jazz on Lockdown’ project which has rallied Jazz Journalists from every corner of the globe and asked them to respond collectively to the pandemic. My colleagues and I are now working together using an online workspace and our individual blogs may be delayed. Those who are able to have volunteered to join an editing working group as we grapple with the challenges of a fast-moving situation. This is a Jazz Journalists Association project aimed at keeping improvised music current and to get updates to and from countries on lockdown. 

Because of that, Spain first captured our attention. When the virus hit, a popular Jazz musician succumbed and soon every resident was under lockdown. As the virus spread, so did our focus and within days the problem had reached every country. One by one the great Jazz centres like New York closed and the iconic and much-loved Jazz clubs closed with them. When the city that never sleeps locks down, you know that you have urgent work to do. Jazz Journalists are not going to sit around moping; nor will we restrict ourselves to watching another era’s YouTube clips. It is the current musicians who need us the most. We are learning new ways of working and it is our intention to direct you to live gigs or the gigs of working musicians where we can. 

We need Jazz fans and Improvised alternative music fans to keep buying current albums. If there is a live-stream concert with a tip-button give them a few dollars. This is a new version of the pass-the-bucket tradition which goes back to the earliest days of Jazz. Many of the live-streamed concerts will be free, some could be pay-per-view. Buy their music and on Bandcamp or their website if possible. ‘Jazz on Lockdown’ will inform you of the links.  

Barry/Metheny/de Clive-Lowe/Alchemy/Smirnova/Martyniuk

The week before the virus arrived was a week of plenty in Auckland, but the above-named artists did not all appear in the same band. Nor at the same gig. They probably won’t mind if you think that though. Attending Ronnies a few years ago, I caught English pianist Kit Downes at the late show. This followed a sold-out earlier show featuring Kurt Elling. I informed Downes that my write up would begin ‘Elling opens for Downes at Ronnie Scotts’. He liked that. 

Arriving in a rush, as if waiting for the cooler weather came Pat Metheny, Steve Barry, Mark de Clive-Lowe, Alchemy, Callum Passells, Trudy Lyle, Simona Smirnova, and Michael Martyniuk gigs. As always, painful choices were required. 

Steve Barry Trio: Barry left Auckland many years ago; settling in Sydney and returning yearly to perform. Each time he visited there were new directions on offer, highly original material and each iteration offering glimpses of lesser-known composers. His recent albums have taken him into deeper waters still, moving beyond the mainstream. For those of us who like adventurous music, they have been compelling. Two albums were released last year. The first is on Earshift Music and the second on Rattle; both available on Bandcamp.  

‘Blueprints and Vignettes’ trod a path reminiscent of 60’s Bley; boldly striking out for freer territory and edging its way confidently into the classical minimalist spaces. That album was followed by ‘Hatch’ which is an astonishing album of stark pared-back beauty. It is an album pointing to new possibilities in improvised music. This concert felt more exploratory, with denser compositions and jagged Monk-like moments. He played one Monk tune halfway through and this reinforced the connection. 

Mark de Clive-Lowe: It was barely six months ago since de Clive-Lowe passed through Auckland during his ‘Heritage’ album release tour. He attracted capacity audiences then (and now). After years of living away from his home city, he is now reconnected to the Auckland improvised music scene and we hope that he will maintain that link. Having a room like ‘Anthology’ certainly helped, as its capacity is significant. During this tour, he treated us to a wider range of his innovative music; especially his Church Sessions. Showcasing the genre-busting underground gigs that he began in LA and which spread like wildfire throughout the world; giving fresh impetus to the improvised music scene and the endless possibilities looking forward.  

On tour with de Clive-Lowe was the respected LA drummer Brandon Combs. A drummer who can hold down a groove beat while working it every which way; able to interact intuitively with the electronic beats generated by de Clive-Lowe as he dances across the multitude of keyboards and devices. Together with locals Nathan Haines and Marika Hodgson, they created wizardry of the highest order. This artist is the wizard of hybridity and we are happy to remind people that he came from this city. Live re-mix, dance, groove beats, jazz, whatever: it has all been captured, mined for its essence and released for our pleasure.

Alchemy Live: This was the first live performance of the ‘Alchemy’ project. It followed the successful release of the eponymous album which got good airplay and deserves ongoing attention. The concept was the brainchild of producer Mark Casey and its realisation by the musical director and Jazz pianist Kevin Field. The pianist has created some truly fine Jazz charts and the assemblage of musicians he brought into the project brought it home in spades. The tunes have been selected from the New Zealand songbook. Perennially popular and chart-busting classics like ‘Royals’ and ‘Glad I’m not a Kennedy’. Artists as diverse as Herbs, Split Enz and Phil Judd. Because of mounting travel restrictions, several of the artists on the recording were replaced for the live gig. New to us, was Jazz student vocalist Rachel Clarke and she won us over that night.

Pat Metheny: This concert had been long anticipated and it was only the second time that he has appeared in New Zealand. In spite of the looming health scare, the town hall was packed. This was a retrospective of sorts as it featured his best-known tunes. Who would not want to hear a fresh version of Song for Balboa or the joyous ‘Have you Heard’? I loved the concert but two quibbles. I didn’t like the way the piano was miked and mixed except for one number. Gwilym Simcock is a great pianist. It would be nice to hear him in a trio and with an acoustically mic’d up Steinway. The star of the show (Pat aside) was bass player Linda May Han Oh. How stunningly melodic and how sensitive she was in each situation she encountered; solos to die for.

Simona Smirnova: This was Smirnova’s third trip to Auckland. By the time she had arrived in the country, people were becoming cautious about attending crowded gigs. She still attracted a good audience and those who did come were delighted with her show. The setlist was similar to her last year’s show but in the bigger Anthology venue, it sounded stronger. Smirnova interacts extremely well with audiences and they respond in kind. Her beautiful ballads (accompanied on the Lithuanian Kanklas) and her upbeat Slavonic styled scatting were the highlights. Her material is delightfully exotic, being an original blend of Jazz, Lithuanian folk music and beyond. Her voice is simply beautiful and her zither playing beguiling. She was accompanied by Auckland veterans Alan Brown on keys, Cam McArthur on bass and this time, Jono Sawyer on drums & vocals). I have some nice footage which says it best.

Michal Martyniuk: The last gig I attended before isolating myself was the Michal Martyniuk Trio. I did not have video equipment with me but I captured the concert in high-quality audio. I will post on that shortly and will be adding sound clips. You can purchase Michal Martyniuk’s albums at michalmartyniuk.bandcamp.com His ‘Resonance’ album review can be viewed on this site if you enter his name in the search button.

Jazz On Lockdown‘ posts will now move to the principle page and the Jazz on Lockdown page will feature information and links from around the world as the information comes in.

The lockdowns won’t stop jazz! To assist musicians who’ve had performances canceled, get their music heard around the globe. The Jazz Journalists Association created a Jazz on Lockdown: Hear It Here community blog. For more click through to
https://news.jazzjournalists.org/category/jazz-on-lockdown/.

The artists featured were:

Steve Barry (piano), Jacques Emery (bass), Alex Inman Hislop (drums),

Mark de Clive-Lowe (keys), Brandon Combes (drums), Marika Hodgson (bass), Nathan Haines (saxophones).

Marjan Nelson (v) Allana Goldsmith (v) Chelsea Prastiti (v) Lou’ana Whitney (v) Rachel Clarke (v) Kevin Field (piano), Roger Manins (saxophone), Mike Booth (trumpet), Mostyn Cole (bass) Ron Samsom (drums), Stephen Thomas (drums)

Pat Metheny, Gwilym Simcock, Antonio Sanchez, Linda May Han Oh

Simona Smirnova (v, Kanklas) Alan Brown (piano, keys), Cameron McArthur (bass), Jono Sawyer (drums).

Michal Martyniuk (piano), Cameron McArthur (drums), Ron Samsom (drums).

Alex Ventling Trio (Switzerland)

The summer break seemed endless with its hot nights, warm breezes and parchment dry days.  Nature shrivelled as the birds stopped singing and the trip to the Hi-Fi became too onerous. There is something about a prolonged heatwave that makes you both lazy and restless at the same time. This is also the time of year when Aucklands premier Jazz club takes its Christmas break and so the resumption of the gigs was happily anticipated.  The first gig of the year was the Alex Ventling trio and what a great way to ease into February. Ventling is a New Zealand ex-pat, but one who settled in Switzerland many years ago. He and his fellow musicians are all from Basel, a part of the Swiss Confederation and speakers of a German dialect.  I passed through there once but all that I can remember was a recommendation from a friend. Stop there if you can, Basel is a jazz city.

This was Ventling’s first gig for the CJC Creative Jazz Club and it attracted a large audience. They poured through the doors escaping the evening’s heat; needing cool and finding it. The venues piano is not without its challenges but on this night it sang sweetly. Partly because it had just been tuned but it was mainly because of Ventling’s sensitive touch. Many pianists tend toward the percussive in a larger room, but this programme required subtlety, room to breathe. The set-list tunes were well crafted and with a heavier touch, the expressiveness would have been sacrificed.  We don’t get too many piano trios through and this trio operated as the best of them do. The musicians listening to each other, reacting, and playing as if they were one entity. It is almost impossible for this level of communication to occur unless a trio has been together for a time, and in this case, they were not only long term bandmates but on the last stop on the tour.

Most of the tunes were originals, but two were interesting reharmonisation of Jazz standards. For instance ‘All Blues’ which hinted at Mehldau Americana voicings;  the astonishing reharm of ‘Someday My Prince Will Come’; the latter truly delightful, surprising, and decidedly edgy. The original melody cast to the four winds as new joys were plucked from the changes. The originals were captivating and especially ‘Expecting the Unexpected’ and ‘Vorfreude’. The later title, one of those uniquely precise German words meaning the joy you feel when looking forward to something. Whatever the German word is for looking back with pleasure, that was the emotion the audience was left with at gigs end. The interactions throughout were impeccable, reminding me of a Pieranunzi trio. The bass player James Kruttli and the drummer Phelan Burgoyne were as riveting as the pianist. This was a trio where your eyes and ears moved constantly from one to the other. We watched in utter absorption and for two hours we forgot the swelter looming ominously outside.

A recent album by the Alex Ventling Quartet was on sale at the door and it is stunning. ‘Alex & the Wavemakers’ has a different lineup and features a vocalist Yume Ito. This is closer to the ECM esthetic and is Jazz Art Music at its very best. The fourth track ‘Trailblazer’ was to my ears furthering the blissful journeys begun by Norma Winstone, John Tayler and Kenny Wheeler. You can find Alex Ventling on Bandcamp or at http://www.alexventling.com.

JazzLocal32.com was rated as one of the 50 best Jazz blogs in the world by Feedspot. The author is a professional member of the Jazz Journalists Association. 

Steve Barry – ‘Blueprints’ Trio @ CJC

Barry S (1)Steve Barry left these shores many years ago and these days Australians count him as their own. It is hardly surprising that they do because since his departure he has raked in the accolades, won numerous awards and completed a Doctorate. Given the above, we can hardly begrudge his move. Music is like water it will always find its level, no matter where the wellspring. Everyone on the New Zealand Jazz scene looks forward to Barry’s yearly trips home as he never rests on his laurels. He brings us new and diverse projects and above all he showcases innovation. 

The ‘Blueprints’ Trio is a good example as it was formed primarily as a vehicle for his doctrinal compositions. For any student of pianism, these works are compelling as they combine strong elements of modern classical composition balanced against Jazz innovation. That Barry achieves this with such clarity, while never completely abandoning the history of jazz speaks strongly of his vision. Very few can achieve this without the music sounding contrived or lopsided. Barry’s compositions, although often challenging, are neither. Audiences listen and above all they smile as the music unfolds. Picking the references and enjoying the journey beyond. Those with a sense of history will hear Monk and Strayhorn; others will hear new music and neither is wrong.

The YouTube clip that I have posted illustrates this clearly as there are distinct Monkish references. When you listen closely though, you realise, that this is a twenty-first-century version and a Monk who has absorbed a whole lot of very contemporary ideas. The angular leap into ultra-modernity is abetted by his Australian bandmates; both completely at home in this adventurous new world.

With him in Auckland were the other members of the current Blueprints trio, Jacques Emery on Bass and Alex Inman-Hislop on drums. With Emery often playing arco bass and Inman Hislop splashing bold colour strokes, the distinctive vibe was complete. While this was very much Barry’s show, no one was in the background. For a copy of the latest Blueprints Trio album ‘Hatch’ go Rattle Records or to view his complete discography go to stevebarrymusic.bandcamp.com/

The Steve Barry ‘Blueprints’ Trio appeared at Backbeat, 100 K’Road, for the CJC Creative Jazz Club on 10 April 2019  

David Berkman – 2019 Auckland

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When David Berkman sits at a piano, any piano, he looks to be at one with the world.  In the parlance of Piano Jazz, the guy is a ‘beast’ and his mastery of the instrument is astonishing. Like all pianists of repute he is accustomed to high-end pianos but when he is confronted with an upright, he still makes it sing.  The last time he visited Auckland, the CJC Jazz club was located in the basement of the 1885 building. At that point, there was a Yamaha Grand on offer. Three moves on from then, the club is now in the ‘Backbeat’, a warm amenable performance space in Karangahape Road. The piano there is a Kawai upright. ‘Uprights are fine’, he said, ‘You just play more percussively’. I’m convinced that he could make a thumb piano sing or swing – and so it was on this night. 

The setlist was a mix of his own tunes and a few well-placed standards. Berkman’s tunes are strong vehicles for improvisation, always melodic and by default, they tend to swing like crazy. With one exception, the standards were Berkman arrangements, and while recognisable they came across as freshly minted masterpieces. Paring the flesh away from ‘All the things’ and giving those old bones a youthful lease on life; finishing wonderfully, gently, with the tag. His Cherokee while closer to the original was also a treat, a real burner. Who dares play that these days (more’s the pity)? Only a killer pianist is who, and contained therein was history, innovation and pure joy. With him were three local musicians who he fondly referred to as his regular New Zealand band. Roger Manins on tenor, Oli Holland on Bass and Ron Samsom on drums.

As I watched him throughout the night, I pondered where he fitted in the stylistic spectrum. Of course, he can range across many styles, but the name Cedar Walton sprang to mind. Later I ran into a musician who said unprompted, ‘This guy and his approach remind me of Cedar Walton’. A musician singled out his comping for high praise. “His comping goes beyond the usual, it is elevated to a high art form. Not just supportive but shepherding you into new territory, bringing out things in your own performance that surprise you”. So all of the above and more applies to him. A drummers pianist, a great comping pianist, a hard swinger. It is therefore not surprising that he shares the bandstand with Brian Blade, Joe Lovano, Billy Hart, Jane Monheit etc. He is also a well-respected educator. Anyone who follows the New York scene will already be a fan as he’s a regular performer around the New York Clubs. For the alert, he can sometimes be caught on the Australian and New Zealand Jazz circuit. If you snooze you lose down-under. Missing gigs like this would be categorised under high crimes and misdemeanors.

He records on Palmetto and his albums are readily available. Recommended is his latest: Old Friends and New Friends – also, Self Portraits or Live at Smoke. For more information go to davidberkman.com. The gig was at Backbeat, CJC Creative Jazz Club, March 2019 – last photograph by Barry Young

McAll @ Freida Margolis

Barney Freidas (3)The pleasure of experiencing great music in small venues is inestimable. Sure, we love it when the famous cats blow through town, rush to get our tickets for the town hall concerts, pay the hefty price tag gladly and listen; watch the tiny figures way, way down on stage.  I have attended many such concerts over the years and regarded them among life’s high points, but now I am not so sure. As great as these concerts are and as amazing as the visiting musicians are, the experience is filtered through layers of complexity and as a result, one essential ingredient is often missing, that feeling of warm intimacy.

I have heard road-wise musicians talk of a virtuous feedback loop, the way artist and audience feed off each other until the music becomes bigger than the sum of its parts. Large civic venues are by their very nature redactive and the end result is often a performer facing a passive sea of listeners. Anyone who has been tapped on the shoulder during a performance and been told by an usher to sit still will get my point. Sitting still and mute is difficult for seasoned Jazz lovers. We know when to hold our breath and we know not to chatter, but we also understand when to vocalise our joy or when to exhort a soloist to greater heights. And bodies will sway and feet will tap – that’s the fine point of engagement. When the music is visceral it radiates a life force and even at the most fundamental level of existence, atoms collide and shift. If it lives it moves.Barney Freidas (4)

Some of us, the lucky ones, have experienced an artist of international stature performing in a small cosy club. If it’s a pianist and if a very good piano is located in the venue, then it’s a recipe for unbounded enjoyment. A few days ago Barney McAll played at a sold-out venue at the Wellington International Jazz Festival. Thanks to his close friend Jonathan Crayford he stopped off for a day in Auckland on his return journey. There had been some discussion about this possibility a few months ago and JC assured me that it would happen. Because I had a prior warning I waited and when the tickets appeared I swooped like a hawk. Only the lucky few got to attend this gig.

The eye-catching online notification featured an attractive sketch and a poster which read; ‘Barney McAll plays Gospel solo piano at Freida Margolis, limited tickets available’.  In the fine print was the word, Steinway. Together this spelt seismic. When you hear McAll you experience more than just music, you experience dreamscapes and multiple histories. The first thing to grasp about McAll is that he can reference many styles and genres and while this is disconcerting to some, it is an essential part of his output. Cutting edge contemporary improvised music, Orchestral Jazz, alternative popular music, standards, soul, free or Gospel. While his projects can feature any of the above styles, each is laid down with the utmost integrity and each bears his unmistakable hallmark.

Barney Freidas (2)

What we heard were mostly Gospel hymns – the sort you would hear in a Harlem church. They were hymns, but not presented in the way you’d hear them in a New Zealand or Australian church. They were improvisational vehicles and the voicings of some old-time Jazz greats shone through. I have heard such voicings from the likes of Hank Jones and this is hardly surprising. Musicians like Jones came up through the black gospel church experience. What is uncommon, is to hear this from a white Australian musician.  His eight years of playing in American Gospel churches left its mark of authenticity on him.

During the night he invited Jonathan Crayford and Bella Kalolo to join him. Crayford accompanied on piano, free improvising, while McAll played an unusual guitar-like instrument, imparting a sitar sound or prepared piano sound. Kalolo was obviously delighted to be accompanied by McAll and even though she was unamplified and therefore low volume the two of them had strong chemistry. While they approach the tunes differently, Gospel is clearly something both artists understand.

McAll also played Necter Spur from his ‘Mooroolbark’ album and ‘The Nock Code’ from his recent ‘Hearing the Blood’ album.  Both albums garnered multiple awards and significant praise. Unencumbered by a band, he ranged freely over the numbers and found exquisite asides to explore in-depth. This was music to be experienced from three metres away. This was a love letter to the classic Steinway ‘D’ series and Freida Margolis was the perfect backdrop. I had mounted the camera up high and it was surrounded by tiles which brightened the sound – but that piano – those tunes and those musicians found the magic and gave us a gig to remember.

Barney McAll (Steinway D, stringed instrument), Bella Kalolo (vocals), Jonathan Crayford (Steinway D) – for McAll albums visit Extra Celestial Arts on Bandcamp.

Michal Martyniuk Trio + Jakub Skowronski

Martyniuk (1)When Michal Martyniuk left Auckland for Poland last year, it was hot on the heels of a successful appearance at Java Jazz; the biggest Jazz festival in the world.  It was always on the cards that Martyniuk’s Auckland trio would fare well, as they are the epitome of an inventive, high energy unit and all of that is wrapped up in a very European sound.

While it was obvious to Kiwis and to the enthusiastic Java Jazz festival goers, I wondered how Martyniuk would be received in Europe. I have travelled there often and there are thousands of good Jazz musicians and many fine trios vying for attention. Jazz is valued there, especially in the northeast, and audiences are inclined to be very discriminating. I got my answer shortly after Martyniuk’s arrival, as notifications of media events, club gigs, radio and TV interviews started appearing. He had broken through the clamour and received acclaim in his birthplace. His co-released warm as toast Jazz-soul-funk album ‘After ‘Ours’ and his Jazz gigs, equally acclaimed.  Martyniuk (2)

The journey back to the country of his birth had been important for Martyniuk and he has returned with heightened confidence, exuding a sense that anything is possible. This was evidenced by the trio’s live performance at the Lewis Eady showroom. Many New Zealand improvising bands have a laid back organic feel as that is generally our thing. In contrast, this band is tightly focussed, but without that in any way detracting from its appeal. The tunes by Martyniuk are melodic and often rhythmically complex. This is counterbalanced nicely by Samsom and McArthur who create contrast and interwoven texture. The first set was a mix of old and new tunes. His older tunes like The Awakening and New Beginning, familiar in the same way standards are – always pleasing, always yielding up something fresh. His more recent compositions a mix of burners and ballads. Martyniuk (3)

The Lewis Eady gig was augmented by the addition of visiting Polish saxophonist Jakub Skowronski. Skowronski has a beautiful even tone on tenor and like Samsom and McArthur, he’s the perfect foil for Martyniuk. While he made it all look effortless, his solos took us deep inside the music. These guys were made to play together and I hope they remain a unit. They have a lot more to tell us yet and with any luck, we will get to enjoy the continuing story as it unfolds. Those who wish to be part of this journey can contribute via a recently set up ‘Kickstarter’ campaign following this link. There was some really exciting new material recorded in Poland over the last year and the Kickstarter campaign is about getting that released into the world. No one ever regretted supporting great music like this.

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Michal Martyniuk (piano, compositions, leader), Cameron McArthur (upright bass), Ron Samsom (drums, percussion) + Jakub Skowronski (tenor). You can follow this band and order albums from Empire Agency Co. Bands / Michal Martyniuk Trio